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Local Health Departments Face Vaccination Challenges

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On Wednesday Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in New Haven was one of two community COVID vaccination sites in the city. They’re now up to 12 pop-ups in the ongoing effort to increase vaccine equity.

“It should be here,” said Rev. Anthony Hargett of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in New Haven. He came to Varick Church for a vaccination. “Even those folks that are skeptical about it, they may feel better about coming if it’s here as opposed to having to go somewhere else outside of the community to get it.”

So far New Haven’s Department of Health has vaccinated 7,300 people. That number doesn’t include the totals from community partners like Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, Fair Haven Community Health Care and Yale New Haven Health, which have all been vaccinating people in New Haven. YNHH may also begin pop-up clinics soon.

From the beginning, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said it’s all about equity and access.

“I just wanted to highlight that our health department continues to do these pop-up clinics because it is very important for us to ensure that we provide the communities that have historically not had access to health care the opportunity to get vaccinated,” said Elicker.

New Haven has become an answer for many searching for a vaccine.

“I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to get a vaccine appointment,” said Dean Volain.

He got his Wednesday appointment at Varick Church on Tuesday. For many like him, the health department is doing its best to answer the call, which includes hundreds of people reaching out every day.

“I called 43 times with no answer. The 44th time a person picked up,” said Volain. “(She) scheduled an appointment within three minutes and I’m here today.”

Up next for the city is vaccinating more than 2,000 New Haven Public School employees.

“Our goal is not to have the New Haven teachers just making appointments everywhere,” said Health Director Maritza Bond. “We’re trying to make it convenient for them and do a mass vaccination site – a centralized site – just for them.”

She says their community health care partners are stepping up to help. Initial plans are for Fair Haven Community Health Care to help vaccinate school staff in Fair Haven while a mass vaccination site will be at Career High School. Bond says they’re working on the plan non-stop.

“The issue is that they’re all completely booked. We’re technically completely booked, right? So, this just added another layer of planning. And it’s fine, we’ll get there. It did just add another layer of planning with such short notice,” said Bond.

Local health departments are starting to feel the pressure of having to do more vaccine clinics targeting communities of color and education staff. There’s some concern about covering the cost.

Michael Pascucilla is the health director for the East Shore District Health Department. He says while the vaccines are free, the staffing them has put a strain on their budget.

“Putting the clinics up is a lot of management that goes behind it with the coordination, the delivery of the vaccine, tracking it and then holding the clinics,” said Pascucilla.

Federal funds are available, but he says they don’t go far enough. He’d like to see a broader investment in all the work done by local health departments, not just their pandemic response and COVID vaccinations.

“We really need not just a onetime increase in funding to get us through this. But we really need to talk about investing in local public health,” said Pascucilla.

The upcoming public school clinics and expansion in age groups means New Haven is looking for more partners to reduce cost.

“The American Red Cross has approached us to support and have vaccinators that are volunteers and willing to do it,” said Bond, who also said they’re considering using medical reserve corps workers.

Bond says federal funds used for pandemic response don’t always mean instant cash. In many cases, they have to spend the money up front and submit for reimbursement.

“We’re responding to the pandemic, that is clear, but it’s not sustainable for us to continue in the current model that we’re in,” said Bond.

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